The Ascension of the Lord (B) (May 12 2012)

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Acts 1:1-11).

This work, the Acts of the Apostles, traditionally ascribed to Luke, is dedicated to a certain Theophilus, unknown apart from the reference to him in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:3), a work also dedicated to him. In today’s reading Luke first gives a summary of Jesus’ work from the beginning to his ascension, as he had done in his Gospel. Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24:1-49,50-51) might give the impression that the ascension of Christ into heaven took place on Easter Sunday, the day of the resurrection, itself. Here, however, Luke says that Jesus appeared to his apostles for forty days after his resurrection. Later in this work Luke has Paul tell a congregation that after his resurrection Jesus appeared “for many days” to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem (Acts 13:31). Paul, citing a very early tradition (1 Cor 15:3-8), speaks of the risen Lord having appeared to Cephas (Peter), the Twelve, more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, to James and the to all the apostles, without mention of any time span. Then, Paul continues, the risen Lord appeared to Paul himself – some three years at least after the resurrection. Over these forty days, our text reminds us, Jesus spoke to his apostles about the kingdom of God, central to his preaching, his ministry and his miracles during his earthly life. The apostles, however, are still thinking within the framework of their Jewish tradition and the kingdom of David and Israel, a hope central to the Jewish messianic expectations of their day. Jesus replies that any such fulfilment, or any fulfilment, is a matter for his Father. What this will be, will be revealed through the inspiration and guidance of the promised Holy Spirit, which will take the apostles and Christ’s first followers far beyond Israel – to the very ends of the earth. The implications the parting words of Christ of which will be made clearer by the narrative of the book of Acts and the history of the Christian Church.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 46[47]). The Lord goes up with shouts of joy.

Second Reading (Ephesians 1:17-23).

The first reading today, from the Acts of the Apostles, gives what one may call the “historical” ascension, an ascension represented as an established historical fact observed by experience of the senses. This representation is found only in this reading of Acts 1:9-10 and in Luke 24:50-51. Other New Testament texts mention the ascension as purely theological fact (without any reference to its being observed by the senses), such as Christ ascending far above the heavens that he might fulfil all things; or as the enthronement of Christ at the right hand of the Father (at his resurrection) without explicit mention of the ascension as in today’s text (Ephesians 1:20) and in many other New Testament texts, which state that the Father raised Christ from the dead to make him sit at his right hand, putting all things under his feet, making him ruler of everything, making Christ the head of the Church which is his body. The Church, Christ’s body, is the fullness of Christ, the fullness which fills the whole universe. It is a rich doctrine, the implications of which biblical scholars attempt to spell out. One explanation (that of J.D.G. Dunn) is that Christ is here portrayed as embodying or epitomizing the rationale and pattern of divine creation. A further reading of this is that the Church, the universal church, through its faith in Christ and in the God who worked through Christ, has the key to understanding reality and is enabled to rise above all that threatened human and social life; the church, Christ’s body, is (or should be!) the place where God’s presence in and purpose for creation comes to its clearest expression. After which the same writer comments: “Would that it were so!” The central point in this reading is the infinite power of God made manifest in the resurrection of Christ and in his ascension and enthronement at the right hand of God. All this divine power, then and still at work, was and is for believers in Christ. This great mystery of God working through Christ, and the church, Christ’s body, is a deep mystery, one that can be properly understood only through divine grace. Hence the prayer at the beginning of the reading to “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory” to give believers true insight into this great mystery, into the richness of this their inheritance, truths which are a central part of the feast of the Ascension we are celebrating.

Gospel (Mark 16:15-20).

It is generally, if not universally, accepted today that the original text of Mark’s gospel ends with Mark 16:8 and that the ending (16:9-20) is a later, although early and canonical, addition, drawing on related Gospel texts (Matthew, Luke) and even possibly the Acts of the Apostles. The reference to picking up snakes and being unharmed may be more of a reference to what happened to Paul (Acts 28:3-5) than a commission on risks to be taken by believers. The reading from Mark, in this Year B, year of Mark, is chosen for today’s feast because of its inclusion of the ascension of Christ (as in Acts 1:2,9), his being seated at the right hand of God, and active in his Church through his saving power.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day

Christ at God’s Right hand Source and Guide of Christian Living

Dialogue with modern society: some guiding principles. All meaningful dialogue must begin, and be conducted, in an awareness of one’s basic position. The author of the First Letter of Peter told his readers to be prepared to give an accounting for the hope that is in them to anyone who demands it (1 Peter 3:15). The hope and faith of Christians is fundamentally that the Easter and Ascension message. This central hope and faith is put clearly in Colossians 3:1-4, the second reading for Easter Sunday (all years). This reading stresses that telievers should look at the things that are in heaven, where Christ is sitting at God’s right hand, not on things that are on earth. The message is that the moral life of Christians is to be guided by the demands of belief in the risen Christ. The continuation of the text in Colossians spells this out. “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)”. Later the same exhortation for this new Christian life says: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12), and much more.

Dialogue possibly revealing contrasting, even incompatible, positions. Dialogue with current culture, whether in the New Testament period or in our own day, may clearly show up positions contrasting or even incompatible with the central Christian message. We have a clear example in the life of Paul. At Athens he preaches to Jews, and in the market place to and the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers without success.(The called him a babbler, chatterer, or rag-licker.) His referencees to “Jesus” and Anastasis (resurrection) are taken as foreign gods. When addressing the learned of Athens, the Areopagus, he seeks to exploit points of common interest with his audience, but at the mention of the resurrection and the resurrection of Christ he is politely dismissed (Acts 17:16-33). Dispirited, he departs for Corinth, where he is encouraged by the Holy Spirit to continue. In his letter to the Corinthians Paul makes clear that his first preaching to them was not in lofty words or human wisdom, but in plain language: Jesus Christ and him crucified, so that their faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-5). The “rulers of this world” (that is the elite) did not understand such a Christian message (1 Corinthians 2:8). If stalemate is reached in some present-day dialogue, Christians may reflect on the basic religious standpoint of each side, and as required come to e deeper understanding of what our Christian “hope”, and heritage is.

Knowledge of the mystery of Christ and the Church through prayer and reflection. Whether in dialogue or otherwise, it well for us all to bear in mind that the Church is basically a mystery in the full sense of this word, not a “revealed truth that we cannot understand” but the medium of God’s saving work through Christ. It is not a political entity, but the body of Christ, in which God’s omnipotence is at work, purifying her constantly to enable her to be the sacrament of his salvation for the whole world.


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